State medical marijuana laws hit an obstacle this week when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Dish Network, a satellite service provider, acted within the law when they fired a quadriplegic employee for using the drug.
Brandon Coats obtained a state license for medical marijuana in 2009 to treat muscle spasms caused by a spinal cord injury sustained in a car accident he was involved in as a teenager that left 85 percent of his body paralyzed. Coats, who was working as a customer service representative at Dish Network at the time, said he smoked marijuana at home after work and within the confines of the Colorado's medical marijuana law. He said periods of intoxication would only last between 20 and 30 minutes.
In 2010, however, he ran into problems when he tested positive for marijuana after taking an impromptu drug test ordered by the company. Coats told his employer that he planned to continue using the drug. While the company agreed that he did not consume the marijuana at work he was fired two weeks later for violating Dish Network's zero-tolerance policy.
"I got to work one day and my access key to the disabled entrance wasn't working," Coats told VICE News. "A security guard took me up to human resources and they told me I was being let go."
Attorney Michael Evans has spent five years litigating Coats' case, and said that they are both "devastated" by the verdict. Until the friction between state and federal law around pot is resolved, Evans told VICE News that it's unlikely he'll take on a case like this anytime soon.
"The Supreme Court's decision was pretty clear," he said. "We gave it the best shot we could. It would have had a powerful effect if we'd won, but I hope losing will have an equally powerful effect."
Since the car accident, Coats has been prescribed a number of relaxants to alleviate his spasms, which he described as "really intense." According to Coats, the drugs tend to lose their effectiveness over time. When Coats first tried marijuana, he said it was a revelation.
"It was amazing, it really worked," he recalled. "Before I couldn't really sleep — my body just wouldn't relax. Marijuana allowed me to actually sleep."
The court ruling in Colorado reflects a creeping discordance in state marijuana laws as the country sees a shift in legal framework when it comes to the drug. With some form of pot now legal in 23 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is one of four states that has completely decriminalized pot, approving its use both medically and recreationally.
Despite these changes, federal law continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act, due to its "high potential for dependency." In 2013, the US Department of Justice amended their drug enforcement policy, allowing states to decide how best to handle "marijuana activity" within their own legal systems, while reserving the right to challenge these decisions at any time.
In a statement to VICE News on Tuesday, Dish Network said it was content with the court ruling.
"We are pleased with the outcome of the court's decision," the company said. "As a national employer, DISH remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law."
Keith Stroup, the head of legal counsel for marijuana legislation reform organization NORML, said that Coats' case has brought to light "the quandary" that many of the country's pot-friendly states are now facing. Stroup, who founded NORML in 1970, told VICE News that legalization laws are still very much in their beta stages.
"Transitioning to legalization means that the first few versions will be far from perfect and we knew that going in," he explained.
Beyond the workplace, Stroup said there are other gray areas that need to be resolved in respect to marijuana legalization, like child welfare and custody laws.People who are legally entitled to smoke in accordance with state law can be deemed unfit parents by federal law, regardless of whether they consume marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
Child protective services are warranted to search the homes of pot-smoking parents, compel them to take drug education courses, and to pledge an oath saying they will abstain from consuming marijuana unless they want to lose custody of their children.
Another thorn in the side of habitual pot users are laws related to driving under the influence of drugs, many of which are strictly enforced. The federal courts have zero-tolerance for someone who commits a traffic offense and is found to have even a trace amount of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — in their bloodstream. But according to Stroup, THC levels can be misleading. A person's weight, age, and the frequency they consume marijuana will affect how they metabolize the drug.
"We need to develop a test that actually measures impairment," Stroup said. "There are many other ways to quantify the impact of marijuana consumption."
As the legal battle comes to an end, Coats has been facing dim employment prospects.
"It's been hard finding work," he said. "It's hard anyway — 85 percent of my body doesn't work, so I'm sort of limited in the kind of work I can do." The use of weed as the justification for his firing from Dish Network doesn't help his cause. "When I go to an interview and they ask why I left my previous job, my explanation doesn't make me particularly employable."
Thanks to the support of his family and a small, monthly stipend from the government, Coats said he's been able to pull through and that lately he's even been thinking about going into advocacy for marijuana law reform.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen